We’ve been traveling around the Mediterranean with Paul on these summer Sundays—taking a little vacation cruise is how I like to see it.
And after stays in out of the way places like Lystra and Philippi, after a night in jail, we come today to Athens—the storied center of Greek thought and culture. The city had declined some since the golden age of Plato and Socrates by the time Paul arrives there. But it is still an important destination. It is still, as one New Testament scholar put it, “a great university town and a symbol of the ‘high culture’ where important ideas have value and are carefully considered by the intellectually curious.”[i]
If those words also sound like a description of Iowa City, well, we’ll take that. Early in our state’s history Mt. Pleasant, the home of Iowa Wesleyan, was called “the Athens of Iowa,” if you can imagine such a thing. But by the late 19th century, it was Iowa City.
The Athenaeum building once stood just down the street at the corner of Clinton and Market. In 1898 the Honorable E. F. Brockway called Iowa City “the city of education and culture that proudly claims the title the Athens of Iowa.” And when Congregational Church member Nathan Brainerd—the plaque on the communion table bears his name—died in 1911, his obituary stated: “Mr. Brainerd was a powerful factor in the upbuilding of the Congregational church in Iowa City. Just as prominently as with church life he was identified with all other educational and religious movements that found recognized existence in the Athens of Iowa.”
Like those in ancient Athens, we are a sophisticated crowd, interested in ideas and culture. The City of Iowa City recently began a campaign to make us the “Greatest Small City for the Arts in America.” Let’s be honest, however, and recognize as well that, like those ancient Athenians, we are susceptible to idolatry. And often as not we seem to be seekers after an “unknown god”—although that might not be such a bad thing.
Let us watch and listen, then, for Paul speaks as much to us in contemporary Iowa City as he does to those in ancient Athens.
It is the idols, of course, that first attract Paul’s attention and his ire. His Jewish heritage leads to his outrage. The Torah given by Moses told the Jewish people—as it tells us—“You must have no other god besides the Sovereign God. You must not make a carved image for yourself, nor the likeness of anything in the heavens above or the earth below, or in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them in worship.”
Paul is outraged. And, like Socrates, he takes his arguments against idols to the marketplace. We should listen because idolatry is not an ancient problem.
John Calvin famously said that human nature “is a perpetual factory of idols.”[ii] Our minds, he said, are full of pride and boldness, daring to imagine a god according to our own capacity. As a result, we keep churning out images and artifacts that substitute for the living God.
The factory is in operation 24/7—and it’s putting out a lot more than golden calves.
The poet, Kathleen Norris agrees with Calvin when she says that “Human beings are incurable and remarkably inventive idol makers.” It is our idolatry that makes love impossible—whether it be love of self, or of neighbor, or of God—because we are quick to put an idol above all else. We see this in the scorn for others that is rampant in our nation—on display in Presidential tweets and rallies, in the children caged on our southern border, in the ongoing and increasing racism and nationalism, in attacks on LGBTQ people. And if we look closely enough we see similar scorn for others in our own hearts and lives. How quickly we give something a higher status than it should have.
We are—each of us and all of us—a perpetual factory of idols.
One of Calvin’s heirs, Presbyterian minister and novelist Frederick Buechner helps us when he says that “Idolatry is the practice of ascribing absolute value to things of relative worth. Under certain circumstances money, patriotism, sexual freedom, moral principles, family loyalty, physical health, social or intellectual preeminence, and so on are fine things to have around, but to make them the standard by which all others values are measured, to make them your masters, to look to them to justify your life and save your soul is sheerest folly. They just aren’t up to it.”[iii]
We think of idolatry as the particular vice of religious people. But the unreligious succumb to its temptations as well.
Religious to the point of idolatry, the Athenians also hedge their bets. So, in this city Paul finds a place of worship and an altar inscribed with the words: “To an unknown god.” Just to be on the safe side.
Perhaps we can cut the Athenians some slack. Let us recognize that, really, God is unknown and beyond our understanding and describing. We can only talk about the faith of others out of a deep humility. One person called our idols “markers of our search for meaning.”[iv] As we search after the “unknown god”—as all of us do—our paths are marked by those things that at one pointed seemed holy, seemed sacred, and no longer do. As we change, our understanding of God changes as well.
And just at this point Paul surprises us again—or at least he surprises me.
He doesn’t fault the way that the Athenians think or the way that they act.
He doesn’t go on the attack.
He speaks with humility and with love about the search for God that engages each one of us.is at the heart of all of us.
Speaking to these sophisticated people who seem so bewildered, Paul is compassionate. He seeks and finds common ground. He tells the Athenians—and tells us—that they have a better sense of this “unknown god” than they might think.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. If we were paying attention, we would remember this was the same approach that we heard Paul take in addressing the people in Lystra.
As in Lystra, so in Athens, Paul’s good news is rooted in the goodness of creation and the God who made the world and everything in it. This unknown God is the Ground of All Being, the One in whom “we live and move and have our being.” We are all the children of this loving God who provides rain and fruitful seasons, filling our bodies with food and our hearts with joy. Everyone—everyone—is included in the love of God. Everyone—everyone—is accepted by God and a recipient of that love.
Again, we see the real problem with idolatry is that is puts something—anything, everything—before the love of God, the love of neighbor, the love of self. When other human beings forget this and seek to exclude and condemn and marginalize people, we understand it as our calling to do what we can and say what we can to make the accepting and welcoming love of God evident once more. We speak and act, not on our own but as part of something far greater, more powerful, and filled with love and compassion for the whole creation. We join with others in groping our way back to God, back to what we don’t know, back to love.
And when we ourselves forget and exclude, well, we, too, find ourselves in need of others who can show us the way back, who can help us, as Paul says, repent—that wonderfully disturbing word that means to turn around and head in a different direction, away from the cliff that we are rapidly approaching.
Of course, the reason that we would dare to do any of this—set aside our idols, seek the good of others, live as though we are all children of the one God, is the resurrection.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act that comes from a faith—however tenuous—that God is bringing about a new creation and we are a part of that work and that creation. And because we are part of God’s new creation, the work that we do continues to matter.
The power of the resurrection is the ability to act because in the resurrection we come to see that, as it has been said, the arc of the universe is long but that it moves toward justice, even though this world can at times seem so obviously filled with such evil and injustice. We can truly act “in faith,” that is, trusting that the ultimate direction of creation is toward God’s good purposes for all of life.
This power comes not through our own positive thinking or by our strenuous efforts. This power rises from God’s vindication of the suffering and death of Jesus in the resurrection, in which we see by faith that even at the moment of great suffering and death, God was at work bringing life—and by that same faith claiming that God continues to do so today.
We, too, want to know such power—power that sets us free to love with abandon, to act even when fear presses in, to draw out the best in ourselves and other people.
Of course, this is a little too much for some people. Some scoffed. Or as one translation puts it, “At the mention of the raising of the dead, some burst out laughing.” Of course they did.
Paul himself would write to the early Christians in Corinth that the whole Christian enterprise was “foolishness to the Gentiles.” But in this great foolishness there is a greater wisdom at work.
For this this foolishness is also the power of God—an ongoing act of bringing wholeness, fullness of life, to us and to all creation.
So we are able to look at and accept the harsh realities of our lives. Life doesn’t always go as we would want it to go. Friends betray, marriages fail, children get ill. We know that violence is all too real and there is enough injustice in the world to make us heartsick. We are broken people and we live in the broken places of this world.
When we recognize that we walk in the valley of deep darkness, we also see the wisdom of God in this foolishness.
So we find ourselves in the Athens of Iowa, joining with those in the Iowa City of ancient Greece. We are like those Athenians who say instead: “We will hear you again on this subject.” We need time in order to understand this good news, to see our idols grow dim beside the brilliant light of new life in Christ, to hear our questions answered in the great love that God has for each of us and for all creation.
[i] Robert Wall, Acts, NIB, pg. 243)
[ii] John Calvin, Institutes (I. XI. 8)
[iii] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, pg. 40
[iv] Jason Cox, “Paul: Appealing or Appalling?” https://www.episcopalchurch.org/fr/node/275251